Representatives of food manufacturers and food service companies recently attended a tour of Oregon’s hazelnut industry intended to inspire new culinary uses for the crop.

The Sept. 13 tour was organized by the Oregon Hazelnut Marketing Board and included stops at a hazelnut orchard and a processing plant, followed by a hazelnut cooking session at Oregon State University’s Food Innovation Center in Portland.

The ultimate goal is to have consumers encounter more hazelnuts in new contexts, hopefully driving consumption of the staple Oregon crop, whose production is expected rise significantly in coming years, said Patrick Gabrish, vice president of sales and marketing for the Hazelnut Growers of Oregon cooperative.

“If you enjoy the product in one format, you’re more likely to enjoy it in more formats,” Gabrish said.

Oregon is the country’s top hazelnut producer, with about 70,000 acres of orchards in the ground and thousands more planted each year. Much of that acreage isn’t yet of bearing age, which means the industry is facing tremendous growth.

China, which has traditionally consumed roughly 60 percent of Oregon’s crop, can’t absorb all the new production and so the industry needs to create a stable domestic market, Gabrish said.

With so many of Oregon’s hazelnuts going overseas, the industry hasn’t had the opportunity to familiarize U.S. consumers with new uses for the crop as it will in the next few years, he said.

Fortunately, modern chefs and food makers aren’t as constrained by what distributors provide as they were in years past — they come from a generation that’s accustomed to doing its own research and tracking down ingredients, Gabrish said.

Part of the solution will fall to processors, who must provide hazelnut ingredients in packages that are well suited to individual companies, he said. For example, restaurants won’t want the industrial-scale pails of hazelnut butter that manufacturers use.

Consumers often see hazelnuts in confectionery goods, but one new product developed by the Northwest Hazelnut Co. takes the crop in a different direction.

The processor teamed up with Esotico, an artisan food company in Silverton, Ore., to create a hazelnut pasta based on Italian recipes.

Esotico has sold the pasta at farmers’ markets and it’s attracting new customers, which will hopefully inspire others to find innovative uses for hazelnuts, said Naomi Inman, public relations director for the Northwest Hazelnut Co.

Aside from imparting a unique flavor, the hazelnuts boost the pasta’s protein content to 11 grams per serving, she said.

“We’re hoping other manufacturers — especially large ones — catch on to savory uses for hazelnuts,” Inman said.

Statistics bear out the positive reception that hazelnut products are likely to encounter: In 2017, 47 percent of consumers surveyed said they considered the crop “very healthy,” up from 24 percent in 2006, according to an Oregon Hazelnut Marketing Board study.

About 49 percent of survey respondents reported eating hazelnuts at least once a month, compared to 33 percent in 2006, the study said.

“Consumers are starting to get almond fatigue, which I think is a pretty big opportunity for hazelnuts,” said Jason Ball, research chef at OSU’s Food Innovation Center.

Though Hazelnuts have the reputation of being seen as special, that shouldn’t discourage their regular usage, said Sarah Masoni, product and process development director at the center.

“We want it to be a daily use item,” she said.

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